City Guide: Off Duty in Reykjavik
If a country's capital says anything about the country as a whole, then Iceland according to downtown Reykjavik is modern, yet calmly paced; charming, though not overly showy; and refreshingly friendly, but not in the in-your-face-all-smiles ways of the US. The southwestern island micro-metropolis and northernmost geographical capital city in the world feels like a familiar friend, even if you've never been there before. Quaint city center streets filled with bars, restaurants, and shops housed inside quintessential Scandinavian architecture play host to millions of tourists every year, and the city, though packed, doesn’t feel crowded. At least, not yet. Just being in downtown Reykjavik on a cloudy, rainy morning, sitting in a warm coffee (kaffi in Iceland) shop eating bread with cheese and jam makes you feel, all at once, like you belonged here all your life.
With a population of under 200,000, Reykjavik is by no accounts large, but what it lacks in size, it 100% makes up for in its strikingly vibrant and welcoming energy. Walking around the city streets, you won’t be able to help but notice the charming, colorful buildings, the quirky street art, and the inviting window displays of restaurants and shops alike. All of this can be found in this tiny, compact capital city, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Since essentially any trip to Iceland is bound to start, or end, in Reykjavik (due to the location of Iceland’s international airport, which is only 45 minutes away from downtown), you might as well make the most of it. Obviously, while the main draws of Iceland for international tourists include waterfalls, other-worldly terrain, and the elusive Northern lights, Reykjavik is a must-do destination in itself. During my trip to Iceland, my boyfriend and I made Reykjavik our home for 3 nights, and felt like this was the perfect amount of time to comfortably soak in all that this city had to offer.
While we rented a car to get around (as our trip extended beyond Reykjavik–more on that in future posts!), you certainly don’t need one if Reykjavik is your final destination, or your home base. Busses to and from the Keflavik International Airport depart on a fairly regular schedule, and it’s just a quick 45-minute drive through beautiful, rugged terrain to get to the heart of the 101–Reykjavik’s downtown postal code district, and the main area you’ll be spending most of your time. Once you arrive, the city is extremely compact and walkable, allowing you to get pretty much anywhere in a few minutes’ time.
WHERE TO STAY
A bunch of classy boutique hotels have sprung up in recent years, as Iceland works to keep up with its tourism boom. That said, hotels in general are still kind of rare in Iceland as a whole, so they are expensive. The more common route, both in Reykjavik and in all of the country, is finding accommodation in a guesthouse or hostel, which usually has a combo of private and dorm rooms so you can select something that fits your budget and your group.
If you’re on a serious budget, and you can manage to squeeze a sleeping bag into your check-in bag, several guest houses offer “sleeping bag accommodation,” which literally means “bring your own sheets and we’ll give you a $10 discount per night.” You’ll still get a bed and a pillow, but the idea behind this is to save guesthouses time and money doing laundry.
Another increasingly common “guesthouse” network in Reykjavik is Airbnb, which is ultimately the route we chose. If you look far enough in advance, odds are you’ll find a place in the heart of the 101, allowing you to be a short stroll from all the city has to offer. Our Airbnb was the tiniest studio you could possibly imagine, but it made for the perfect home base for our 3-night stay (and, at under $100 a night, it’s probably one of the cheapest private accommodations you can get).
WHAT TO DO
Every big city in the world is defined by its own high street, and Reykjavik’s Laugavegur is a sight to see in itself. Laugavegur, or “Wash Room” (as this used to be the main road to the hot springs that Icelanders would use to take their clothes to launder), comprises all of Iceland’s coolest restaurants, bars, and shops showcasing everything from hand-crafted Icelandic art to touristy but quintessential wool sweaters. Decked out with cool coffee shops and even cooler street art, Laugavegur offers so much to see about Iceland’s design and fashion scene in just a few blocks’ span.
Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík
No matter where you go in the city, you literally can’t miss Hallgrímskirja. It towers over the city, and is one of the tallest structures in the entire country. We visited the church in the morning and paid about $9 each to take the elevator up to the viewing deck at the top, which is honestly a must when you’re in town. Standing in the observation platform, high up in the towering peak of the church, you are welcomed by 360 degree views of the city in all of its iconic red, blue, white, and green glory.
Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík
Another iconic building you practically can’t miss, the Harpa Concert Hall is a glass structure that seems to change its appearance throughout the day as the changing daylight and surrounding city reflections bounce off its walls. We didn’t get a chance to, but if you’re in the area and a performance is taking place, go. Iceland is renowned for its musical talent.
KOLAPORTID FLEA MARKET
Tryggvagötu 19, Old Harbour, Grófin, Reykjavík
Kolaportið is a flea market located near the Old Harbor in Reykjavik. Open on the weekends, the market is full of all kinds of vendors from Icelandic sweater peddlers to artisans serving cured shark samples on a stick–and, ok, shark actually wasn’t that bad! … in a fishy, kind of chewy, not entirely pleasant but also not spit-outable sort of way. While Kolaportið isn’t the most notable place to spend your time in Reykjavik, it’s worth a walk-through, if for nothing else but to try the shark and admire all of the Icelandic pastries and handmade goods.
WHERE TO EAT
As soon as we landed in Keflavik, our taxi driver told us that if we found any bad food in Reykjavik, we’d need to call him to let him know. His point? The food in this cosmopolitan city is different, exciting, and made with great care, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything disappointing.
Kárastígur 1, 101 Reykjavík • Brautarholt 2, 105 Reykjavík
A familiar coffee shop in a this-could-totally-belong-in-downtown-Los-Angeles sort of way, Reykjavik Roasters was our go-to for flavorful coffee and snacks. For a quick (affordable!!!) breakfast, go for the bread with cheese, butter and jam, or the yogurt with muesli, dried fruit, and jam. So understated, yet so good.
JOE & THE JUICE
Laugavegur 10, 101 Reykjavík
Your go-to spot if you’re looking for America-sized coffee cups. And freshly made juices. And good playlists. And just generally fun vibes all-around.
ICELANDIC FISH & CHIPS
Tryggvagata 11, 101 Reykjavík
A bit greasy but it definitely hit the spot. Go straight for the fish and onion rings or crispy potatoes, and do not skip the "Skyronnes®" dip (like tartar sauce, but healthier because it’s made with skyr–Icelandic yogurt!).
Frakkastígur 26a, 101 Reykjavík
New-age Icelandic tapas served under a turf roof in a chic setting just footsteps from Hallgrímskirkja. We tried the beef pancakes and fish pie, among other things. It’s a bit pricey, and reservations are recommended, but it’s worth a stop. After we ate at Rok, we visited a food truck for a cheaper, but equally delicious dessert.
Near Hlemmur, 105 Reykjavík
That food truck I mentioned? Voila. Nothing more than a tiny little van near Hlemmur bus station, Don’s Donut’s has to-actually-die-for mini donuts that you can get covered in things like chocolate sauce or caramel and dusted with toppings like cookie crumbs or m&ms. We went twice in one night.
BRAUD & CO
16, Frakkastígur, 101 Reykjavík
I promise that you will not find better bread or a yummier quick breakfast in all of Reykjavik than you will at Brauð & Co. What looks like an unassuming graffiti-covered house from the outside actually houses a bakery that makes all of its goods on-site, in front of you, as you’re standing in line. Smells of cinnamon and sourdough abound. Do not leave without getting your hands on one of their buns. We got a vanilla bun and a caramel nut bun, and to this day I still don’t understand how one little bun could possibly be filled with so much gooey goodness and still be legal. We came back the next morning for an entire loaf of bread which also didn’t disappoint.
WHERE TO GET DRINKS
It’s true–drinks in Iceland are pricey, and a good night out will cost you. Buy a bottle of wine in a Vínbúðin (government-regulated liquor store, and the only place to buy liquor in all of Iceland) to get your night started on the economic side, and then head out to one–or all–of these central bars.
THE ENGLISH PUB
Austurstræti 12, 101 Reykjavík
Welcoming vibe, live music, and a bar-side spin-the-wheel that inadvertently caused me to win 8 free beers 15 minutes before closing time.
Veltusund 1, 101 Reykjavík
The name doesn’t disappoint. Pablo Discobar is a 2nd-floor disco jams-blasting bar that gets pretty packed after dark. You’ve been warned, though–this rang in at the most expensive drink of our entire trip ($25 for 1 margarita).
Vesturgata 2, 101 Reykjavík
An unassuming basement bar with a pretty extensive beer selection. Sign leading to this underground bar pictured below (left).
Austurstræti 9, Austurstræti, 101 Reykjavík
Decked out with what I can only describe as retro tailor shop chic (you’ll see), this 2nd-floor bar has good (pricey) drinks and cozy, heated window seats that overlook the street below. Pictured above (right).
Bergstadastraeti 1, 101 Reykjavík
Kaffi bar by day, actual bar by night.
Skúlagata 28, 101 Reykjavík
Housed in an old biscuit factory, KEX (literally “biscuit” in icelandic) is one of the most infamous hostels in the city. The corresponding lobby bar does not disappoint. Stop here if you want a cheap (one of the cheapest) drink or some live music. Do not stop here if you want a quick bite during peak going-out hours though. You likely won’t find a place to sit down.
1-3, Naustin, 101 Reykjavík
Another locale with some of the cheapest drinks around. Paloma is a bit grungy, a little uncouth, and slightly confusing (3 different floors, each with a different vibe altogether), but overall, we loved it, and we decided to come back 2 nights in a row.
LATE NIGHT BITES
3 b, Veltusund, 101 Reykjavík
For the love of all that is good, if you love falafel, or any sort of gyro, really, Mandi will not disappoint. The long wait was a bit excessive, but you can’t blame the crowd of people also trying to get their hands on one of the best late night bites in town.
Hafnarstræti 9, 101 Reykjavík
Sleazy, bizarre, yet somehow comforting. My boyfriend and I affectionately dubbed this place “Subway on crack.” Go there. Find out why.
BAEJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR
Tryggvatagata 1, 101 Reykjavík
Rumor has it that hot dogs are a big deal in Iceland, and when you mention hot dogs (or pylsur) in Reykjavik, this place will without a doubt come up. Worth a stop because of the hype? Sure. Worth another stop because it was as amazing as its reputation leads you to believe? I don’t think so, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
I fell so quickly in love with this city, and I think it’s forever carved a fond place in my heart. From friendly people and unique food to a budding nightlife scene and interesting history, if Reykjavik is your first and only destination in Iceland, you won’t be disappointed.
If it’s not your only stop in Iceland, stay tuned. I’ll have more to share soon!